Grandma is Wrinkled
Up until I was seven years old, I had resided in East Phoenix (46th St and McDowell) and West Phoenix (51st Ave and McDowell). In 1980, my parents separated and my brother and I moved with our mom to North Phoenix (28th Dr and Cactus). Twenty years ago, this was a significant move because of the lack of diversity in my new neighborhood.
One pleasant fall day, I was
walking down Sweetwater Rd. on my way home from school with one of my classmates,
who happened to be white. We were strolling along talking a mile
a minute. As we were walking by the empty playground, a noisy hot-rod
car that was blaring loud rock-n-roll music slowed down next to us.
Inside the car were four white teenage boys with long shaggy hair.
The unfamiliar voices started yelling, ìNigger!î and ìNigger Lover!î
I heard an evil sort of laughter and then tires screeching as the boys
sped off. I was really scared because of all the talk about ìstranger
dangerî. I thought the boys were going to kidnap us. I didnít
know what the boys meant when they were yelling at us, but I got the feeling
that my friend knew. I asked my freckled faced friend what they were
saying and she got kind of embarrassed and would not tell me. We
continued walking and talking but, the whole time I was scared and confused.
When Vanessa came home from school that afternoon, I could tell something was bothering her. I asked her how her day was and she said, ìOkî. It wasnít until about thirty minutes later that she came to me. She said, ìMom, can I ask you something?î and I said, ìSureî. Her next question was something I was not really prepared for. She asked me, ìWhat does nigger mean?î
I knew some day I would have to talk to her about race because of the fact we were an interracial family. When Vanessa was about three years old, I started teaching her that there were differences in color in our family. I told her ìMommy is white and daddy is black.î I would then ask her, ìWhat color is mommy?î and she said, ìWhiteî. I asked her, ìWhat color is daddy?î and she said ìBlackî. I asked her ìWhat color is grandma?î and she said, ìWrinkledî. I wanted her to know that there was a difference, but I knew at that time she was too young to understand what the difference meant.
So, that afternoon when she asked me ìWhat does nigger mean?î, I knew she was ready for the talk. I asked her what prompted this question. She told me the story about her walk home from school. It broke my heart to hear that someone called my little girl that word. I told her that the word was a derogatory term that people (mostly white) use to call black people. I told her that there are people out in the world that do not like black people and do not respect them as well.
I remember sitting on the couch with tears in my eyes because I could not understand why those boys hated me because I was black.
I also told her about the KKK, which I think frightened her. I explained that there are good and bad people out in the world. I made sure that she knew not all white people were racist.When she told me about a group of white people that wore white sheets and preached hate, I remember being scared that they were going to find me and hang me.
It was very hard to see Vanessa upset. I felt as if there wasnít anything I could do, but comfort her. As a white woman, I will never know what it is to be black. I could only raise my children to be strong individuals. I taught them to see people for who they are and not the color of their skin.
During the early 1980ís time, there was a definite racial divide, more so than there is now. People were more openly racist against minorities. White people who dated or married outside of their race were definitely seen as ìrace traitorsî. Looking back, I can come up with several reasons as to why the boys felt the need to yell a racial epithet to a young girl who was half black.
The boys got the behavior from their parents. They probably heard racist talk from their parents. Kids who hear their parents saying things about other people will tend to pick up their parentsí views about that particular group. Children and teens want to please their parents and make them proud. So, in their mind, yelling a slur will make their parents proud. Even though their parents may have never actually uttered a racial slur to a minorityís face.
Teenagers harass others for fun. As a kid, you try to prove yourself to your friends and go along with the group. One of the ways to do this is to pick on someone who is weaker or different from you. The boys chose to pick on me, because I was different from them. I am not even sure they realized how hurtful their words were or the affect it had on me. All it takes is for one person to say something and then the group will follow.
It doesnít matter that I was only half black; to the boys I was still a ìNiggerî. I think because of the time period, this incident was more apt to happen and probably at a high frequency. Nowadays, people try to be more politically correct, so they keep their true feelings about race inside the home.
Before this incident, I knew
there were people of different skin colors. I knew some of my family
was black and some of my family was white, but I didnít know racial prejudice.
I chose friends that I had fun playing with and it didnít matter if they
were white, black, or brown. It wasnít until that day after school
that I realized that people saw us as different.
Return to Personal Memory Ethnographies